Blackstone to buy AB InBev parks for up to $2.7 billion

BRUSSELS/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Blackstone Group LP BX.N plans to buy Anheuser-Busch InBev's ABI.BR U.S. theme parks for up to $2.7 billion, the companies said on Wednesday, expanding the private equity firm's entertainment portfolio.

The sale by AB InBev was widely expected as the company focuses on paying off $45 billion in loans from the $52 billion merger last year that made it the world’s biggest beer maker.

After Belgium’s InBev took over U.S. rival Anheuser-Busch, it set a target to raise $7 billion from divestments.

The theme park deal, one of the largest private equity transactions this year, would push it to within about $500 million of that target.

Blackstone will acquire Busch Entertainment Corp (BEC), which the brewer said was the second-largest theme park operator in the United States.

That will add 10 parks -- including three SeaWorlds and two Busch Gardens -- to Blackstone’s existing amusement assets such as the Madame Tussauds wax museums, Legoland and the London Eye Ferris wheel.

Blackstone will pay $2.3 billion on closing and a right to participate in its return on initial investment capped at $400 million, the companies said in a statement.

Private equity firms have been largely unable to strike deals of scale since the credit crisis virtually shut off access to financing for leveraged deals, but have of late been able to access limited amounts of debt for deals.

Blackstone will use senior secured credit facilities and mezzanine debt to finance its purchase. The senior credit facilities are being provided by BofA Merrill Lynch, Barclays Capital, Deutsche Bank Securities, Goldman Sachs Loan Partners and Mizuho Corporate Bank.

AB InBev said it expected the deal to close in the first half of 2010.

Rival theme park operators, which have been hit in the recession as families curb spending, include Walt Disney Co DIS.N, General Electric Co's GE.N Universal Studios, Six Flags Inc and Cedar Fair LP FUN.N.

The brewer of Budweiser, Stella Artois and Beck’s may still sell 11 breweries in seven countries in central and eastern Europe. Private equity firm CVC Capital Partners has submitted the only bid, of around $2 billion, sources say.

AB InBev has not made any comment on this possible sale.

Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels and Martinne Geller and Megan Davies in New York; editing by Elaine Hardcastle and Gunna Dickson